Nominees: Amy Adams, Doubt; Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Viola Davis, Doubt; Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Prediction: Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
In the strongest acting category this year, at least three of the nominated ladies are Oscar-worthy. As the mother of a student implicated in a sex scandal, Viola Davis in Doubt displays a power all the more remarkable for its restraint. Kate Winslet could've won, and may have deserved to, for reasons explained previously; but Cruz in Woody Allen's Spanish comedy gives another one of those performances that, halfway through an agreeable film, twists the cap off and lets the comic demons fly out. As Javier Bardem's ex-wife she's almost a cartoon of Iberian passion, but Cruz lends a thoughtfulness that lifts her character above stereotype. She gets extra points for her long kiss with Scarlett Johansson and, indirectly, for her excellent lead role in Elegy. The Academy members don't make their choice in a vacuum.
Preference: Viola Davis, Doubt
There's Acting which Doubt has a lot of, mainly in Meryl Streep's hectoring, harpyish (and Oscar-nominated) performance and then there's acting, small a, the kind that opens a window into a complex, troubled soul. That's what Davis brings to a smallish role as the mother of a boy implicated in a possible school sex scandal. Drop by careful drop, she pours out her heart, revealing the aspirations and desperation of any parent who will fight to ensure that her son has a better life than she has. There's a wonderfully contained power in this performance: emotional precision and devastating honesty. (In a similar, and also Oscar-nominated, role, Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin Button's surrogate mother is splendid.)
Robbed: Dakota Fanning, The Secret Life of Bees
Oscar is not the best teacher for young actors; it often rewards the showboaters and scenery chewers. (See Streep in Doubt.) So it's amazing that Fanning, who will turn 15 the day after Oscar night, has been turning in such subtle characterizations in the eight years she's been in movies. There are soupy and soapy parts of Bees, the tale of a white kid saved by a group of black angels, but Fanning always knows exactly how much to reveal and conceal. She is, by example, one of the medium's best acting teachers.